Children play in Hell’s Kitchen’s open-air public bathhouse over a century ago. This public bath was a floating wooden pool, docked by the Hudson and filled with river water.

Public Baths No 10, W 51st St – Hudson River (circa 1902)
Public Baths No 10, W 51st Street – Hudson River (circa 1902). Photo: Museum of the City of New York.

But while the picture shows kids having fun, the baths were made less for recreation than to remedy New York’s dire public health plight. Political reformer Josiah Quincy said: “The advance of civilization is largely measured by the victories of mankind over its greatest enemy – dirt.” And public bathing was at the forefront of this.

The floating baths were built along the East and Hudson Rivers from 1870, and by 1888 around 2,500,000 men and 1,500,000 women used them every year during bathing season (June to September).

The baths were free. However, they were such a welcome relief from the summer heat that there was often conflict. The city imposed a 20-minute time limit in an effort to restrict lingering. But there were accusations of patrons bribing attendants to turn a blind eye. Young boys were more innovative, and often went from one bath to another, dirtying themselves on the way so as not to be denied admittance.

Early in the 20th century, pollution of the river water reached serious levels and so, in 1914, all floating baths were required to be watertight. If river water was used, it had to be purified and filtered. The need for year-round bathing also meant the need for indoor public baths.

In 1904, Hell’s Kitchen got a bathhouse at 327 W41st Street (now the site of the McGraw-Hill Art Deco building) and in 1906 the north was serviced by a bathhouse at 232 W60th Street (still there as the renovated Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center), mainly serving the Irish community to the south and the San Juan Hill neighborhood to the north.

Early conflicts between both these communities presaged later racial clashes in the same area that would be immortalized (albeit with different ethnic groups) in the musical and film West Side Story.

Anyone fancy a dip in the Hudson to clean off today?

This article was originally published in the first summer edition of W42ST magazine in July 2015.